How About Them Apples? Foraging for Free Fruit

Foraged Apples
Illustration by Davin Risk

If you’ve been following my Instagram over these last weeks, you will have noticed that I have gone out foraging for apples with a friend on a couple of occasions. In that time I have received a few requests for more info, i.e. how I do it, what are the subtle “rules” to forage by. I thought I’d answer some of those questions and talk about my experiences foraging in the city.

Where to Forage in the City:

This is a tricky question. When it comes to apples, I look around for trees that are on public land that nobody is picking. These are the trees that are surrounded by a thick pile of fermenting, sometimes rotting fruit that has dropped. They are often teeming with wasps that get drunk on the fermented fruit and create a bit of a public nuisance, buzzing and bumping around sloppily like that guy at a party that you can’t shake or get away from fast enough. That said, I try to avoid trees that are going on suspect land. A tempting as it was, I decided not to pick from an apple tree growing next to the railroad tracks. My temptation was further dampened by the fact that this particular tree was also very near to a corridor of hydro towers.

I also look for trees in front and side yards that clearly have not and will not be picked. Early in the season, I make a mental note of local trees and watch to see if they get picked or not. In many cases these trees are owned by seniors who are no longer up for the challenge, or new home owners who aren’t interested or properly equipped to handle the job. I live in neighbourhood that has been predominantly Italian for the last 50 years and there are loads of large unpicked trees due to an aging population. I feel like the best etiquette in these situations is to knock on the door or leave a note with contact info, asking for permission to pick, and offering the owner a fair percentage of the haul. In most cases people are more than happy to have you do the job and haul them all away. It is often the case that they are overwhelmed by the volume of fruit, and don’t want it anyway.

Another option would be to forge a mutually beneficial relationship with the homeowners. Seniors, particularly, might appreciate it if you can check in on the tree at least one time in the year to help prune.

Bag of Foraged Apples

Tools for Foraging:

  • When walking or taking public transportation, a trundle buggy makes it a thousand times easier to transport a big haul home.
  • Bring plastic bags for wet fruit. Breathable cloth bags are best for hauling good, dry apples.
  • This Fruit Picker from Lee Valley is worth every penny. The metal “fingers” allow you to pluck high reach apples, which then fall into the cotton bag without bruising. We’ve found that when the apples are small, we can pick two or three at a time this way. Pair the tool with an Extendible Pole. I bought mine for painting an awkward spot over the stairs, but it has seen a new life as an apple-picking tool. We have been able to reach much higher with it and have never had need of a ladder. A ladder would be handy, but without a car, it’s just a hassle.

Tips for Foraging:

  • Try to pick on a dry and sunny day and avoid picking after a heavy rain when there is still a lot of moisture in the tree/s.
  • Fallen apples: I have foraged fallen apples, but I have made it a policy to process and cook them — I never eat them raw. My biggest concern is that since I am foraging in the city, I don’t know how long they’ve been on the ground and what they have come into contact with during that time.
  • I guarantee you this: passerbys will stop to watch, gawk, and sometimes chat. When this happens, offer them a free apple or two. It opens up dialogue and creates a feeling of goodwill. It can also be a nice way to meet your neighbours. And you never know, it could generate a lead on another windfall that is free for the picking.
  • Wear shoes with good tread. Seems dumb, but I have slipped on fallen fruit more than a few times. Good tread also helps if you have to climb a hill. This has also happened more than a few times.
  • Bring water and snacks.
  • Avoid picking from branches that are close to electrical lines. No apple is worth the risk.
  • Wash the apples well before you use them: Again, they could have bird poop on them. They may also be coated in a layer of city filth, car exhaust, animal urine or feces, etc.

Things to do with foraged apples

Press apple cider (I did this with friends just last night!) and then mull the cider slowly on the stove with spices. Add a shot of spiced rum! Brew up a batch of foraged hard apple cider(ish). Ferment further into apple cider vinegar! Cook and can (or freeze) apple sauce, dehydrate apple slices, make apple butter, bake apple pie (with a spelt crust), or freeze apple slices for mid-winter apple pie. Bake an apple crumble, apple brown betty, baked apples stuffed with raisins, apple cake, apple muffins, bread pudding, or more.

There’s probably about a million more ways to use apples that I have not hit upon here. Which is why I will be out foraging for apples again before the season is up.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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13 thoughts on “How About Them Apples? Foraging for Free Fruit

  1. I absolutely love your approach and almost (but not quite) wish I hadn’t just bought a bushel of apples at my favorite orchard yesterday. If I love canning applesauce as much as I think I might, I’ll have to scope out my neighborhood for trees in need of picking so I can make some more.

    Such an excellent way to avoid waste, help out our elderly neighbors, and get closer to our communities. Thank you!

  2. Great post! Many people assume that apple trees that have not been sprayed will not have any usable fruit. Since acquiring an old apple tree (60+ years old I think) and many wild apple trees with the house, I’ve found that oftentimes the ecosystem more or less works out around an less than ideally cared for tree. 9/10 apples I grab are pretty much fine, I cut not so nice spots out, and the apples make great apple sauce. Two years ago I made apple cider vinegar which is also quite nice (but one heck of a production with a cheap juicer to make the juice.)

    Do you find that your apple picker stays on the pole? I just use a broomstick with mine and have found that the picker sometimes stays on the apples while the stick part comes out of the stick holder-y part when I’m trying to pick in a dense spot in the tree. Then I have to get the broomstick back in the picker. (Sorry, I can’t seem to find a more eloquent way to describe that…)

  3. I got the Lee Valley fruit picker as a birthday present last year from a friend, and used it for the first time this season. LOVE IT! I find that if you really wedge it onto a pole (I bought a colourful plastic broom stick from the dollar store) it will stay on the pole versus the tree branch.

    I found a nice public spot up where I live in North York that has some lovely trees that are absolutely covered with apples this year. I think the area used to be a farm/orchard 50+ years ago, so I tell myself they are survivors of that era. I went to pick my second batch on the weekend and met a young family that was also picking apples. It’s definitely a great way to meet other foraging enthusiasts.

  4. Thanks for the tips. I’ve noticed some apple trees at the neighboring park but have been a little hesitant on doing any actual foraging until now.

  5. Timely post! I’ve been foraging for pears and apples here on Cape Cod.
    And have found that an estemated ratio of 2 pears to 8 apples makes a very
    good sugarless apple sauce, just a little on the tartside. MJ

  6. If you just want to help pick unwanted fruit and help out your community, check to see if there is an organization like working in your area. These folks in Denver get people who don’t want all their fruit to sign up their trees, then send pickers at harvest time. The fruit goes to local shelters, and everyone feels great about it!

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